Unless you’ve worked remotely before, this year is likely the first time you’ve participated in a remote performance review. Along with the baseline anxiety that performance reviews bring up for many people, it’s natural to wonder how this year’s review will differ from the in-person reviews of the past, and how you can best prepare for your remote performance review this year.
Like in-person reviews, remote performance reviews are meant to be a meaningful discussion about performance, goals, and growth. While virtual connection differs from in-person interaction in a number of ways — video lags can impact fluidity of conversation and it’s harder to read body language, for instance — much of your preparation for this review will be the same as for an in-person one.
“In most respects, [remote reviews] are the same as in-person performance reviews,” said Josh Rovner, business consultant and author of Unbreak the System, Diagnosing and Curing the Ten Critical Flaws in Your Company. “Whether you’re conducting the review or receiving it, you still need to prepare in advance for the discussion, so you know what you’re going to say, what you’re going to ask, and what you’re going to listen for,” he added.
Here are best practices to follow for both managers and employees to help everyone get the most out of remote performance reviews this year, no matter which side of the screen you’re on.
Making employees feel relaxed, open, and at-ease during this year’s performance review is a top priority. This will require that managers keep in mind the context of the year while trying to bridge the gap of remote connection. Here’s how to do this.
Performance is a measure of success against goals or past performance. To accurately evaluate performance this year, it’s important to adjust for the dip in the global economy as it relates to business performance, as well as the challenges brought on by the abrupt transition to working from home.
For example, comparing an employee’s performance this year to that of last, especially when it comes to metrics like sales or growth, is a fundamentally unfair way to gauge performance due to the lagging economy.
And on a personal level for employees, all of our lives have changed dramatically since the pandemic hit, and our responsibilities expanded almost overnight. Even before COVID-19, in 2019 an article about the future of remote work published by the American Psychological Association said, “Along with social isolation, the clouding of work-family boundaries is a significant challenge for remote employees.”
In 2020, these challenges took on new weight as schools, childcare centers, and doggie daycares closed abruptly, and many individuals became full-time caretakers in addition to their roles as full-time employees.
To account for the tough year, Laura Fuentes, a director at cable provider Infinity Dish, said she’s adjusting the criteria of her performance reviews to reflect the year. “The goals of my performance reviews have shifted to allow for new performance metrics,” Fuentes said. “While overall performance is still important, I have also decided to include adaptability, resilience, commitment to peers, and effective and timely communication.”
If you’ve ever responded to emails or messages while on a conference call, you’re not alone. One Harvard Business Review article presented research from audio and web conferencing services provider InterCall, which found that 65% of people admit to doing other work while on conference calls. But performance reviews are far from a run-of-the-mill conference call you can multitask your way through, and employees deserve your undivided attention.
While online, do your best to replicate an in-person performance review. “Having the webcam on is screamingly obvious,” said David Gorton, Head of Talent and People at BlueOptima, a software development analytics company. “But making sure you’re fully focused on the employee and not alt-tabbing away throughout the meeting is important, too.”
Look into your computer’s camera when speaking to mimic eye contact, and try moving the viewing window to just below the camera to make this easier. Another best practice to try: Elevate your laptop with a laptop stand or stack of books so the camera is at eye level, so the other person isn’t looking up at your chin the whole time. Just make sure that whatever you balance your computer on is stable to avoid any mid-performance-review crashes.
Tammy Bjelland, founder and CEO of Workplaceless, a training company that helps companies solve performance, productivity, and engagement gaps due to ineffective remote work, reaffirmed the need for dedicated focus on the person and the task at hand.
“Do not multitask during a performance review — be present in the conversation and give the employee your undivided attention. Have all your materials ready before the review starts so you don’t have to go searching for anything during the conversation,” Bjelland advised.
Companies need a culture of continuous feedback so employees receive regular input on their performance. Continuous feedback engenders trust between managers and employees and clears the way for a more productive performance review.
Conversely, providing new information or feedback during a performance review can denigrate trust between the manager and employee. Trust between colleagues, managers and employees, and on teams is essential for success in the workplace. And on remote teams, it’s even more important.
According to research compiled in Challenges and Barriers in Virtual Teams: A Literature Review by Sarah Morrison-Smith and Jaime Ruiz, “Trust is linked to positive aspects of collaboration. For example, commitment to the team and project is greatly influenced by trust...building trust early on in a virtual collaboration plays a critical role in developing adequate group functioning and the ability to manage social activities.”
When the employee has a sense of what feedback they can expect to hear during their performance review, it bolsters trust while creating the space for a more productive conversation for all parties involved.
“The most constructive reviews are invariably those where there are no surprises in the session, as strong ongoing communication and transparency on performance exists before the review meeting itself,” Gorton noted. “Then the session is more an opportunity to share reflections and insights and build a plan to take the performance to the next level.”
Having a formal discussion about your performance in the workplace can be stressful to begin with. Even in the ideal scenario where you and your manager regularly exchange feedback, the on-the-record nature of an annual performance review can make both parties uneasy. And this year, performance reviews may be riddled with even more anxiety due to the unprecedented stresses we’ve experienced and the newly remote nature of the review. If you’re on the receiving end of the remote review, here are some tips to help you prepare so you can be at your best.
Prior to sitting down, albeit virtually, with your manager, review your own performance over the time period that will be discussed — and put it in writing. “Have questions prepared, make talking points, and build your case for why you've had a great quarter or year,” advised John Ross, President and CEO of Test Prep Insight, an online education company.
Caroline Lee, Marketing Director and cofounder of e-signature platform CocoSign, suggested compiling your personal highlights and wins and jotting down some bullet points. Here’s her list of questions to ask yourself (and write down the answers to) to get you started:
You’ll also want to discuss the challenges you’ve experienced. Perhaps the transition to remote work has been trying for you, or you’ve felt stressed by the social and political movements taking place this year. Sharing these struggles gives your manager the background and context to more equitably evaluate your performance.
You’ll impress your manager if you come armed with solutions to any hurdles you’ve experienced this year, so in advance of your performance review take time to honestly reflect about what you need to be successful. “Plan ahead and ask for any tools and resources that you may need to better yourself and your work,” advised Arnold Chapman, CEO of ELDFocus, an online resource for the trucking industry.
For example, if you’re now juggling the responsibilities of being a full-time employee on top of also being a full-time parent and caregiver, perhaps a more flexible schedule would help you better meet the demands of your work.
Framing your request as a solution that will benefit all parties is a good place to begin. You could say something like, “I understand I’ve struggled with X, Y, and Z this year. Like many working parents, I am now handling the challenges of having the kids home during the day while I fulfill the responsibilities of my job. The hours I best have a chance to focus are very early in the morning and in the evening. As long as I’m attending the weekly all-hands meeting, would you consider granting me the leeway to complete my work on my own time? I will continue to screen email throughout the day in order to respond to any urgent requests.”
Thankfully the business world has made great strides in prioritizing output over appearance in the last decade. Less important than how we dress or look is the work we do, as it should be. However, if there’s one day to be sure your Zoom shirt is in top form, it’s the day of your performance review. More than just communicating to your manager that you’re prepared for your review, taking a few extra minutes to look your best will give you a boost of confidence, too.
Keep body language in mind as well: Refrain from slouching and be sure to look at your computer’s camera when speaking, and try not to fidget. Create a comfortable space for yourself, arranging whatever you need ahead of time — your notes and any questions you’ve prepared, and even have a glass of water nearby if you know your mouth gets dry when you’re nervous. Knowing you’ve thoroughly prepared and optimally set up your space in advance will allow you to be relaxed, open, expressive, and receptive during your review.
Remote performance reviews are similar to in-person reviews in many ways. With the right preparation, a performance review is an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about an employee’s role, performance, and opportunities for growth. For a remote performance review, take the same preparations you’d take for in-person review, plus a few important extras. Remember to give the screen — and the person behind it — your undivided attention, leave longer than usual pauses to account for lag time, and make eye contact with your computer’s camera. By following these tips, managers and employees alike will set themselves up for the most productive and successful remote reviews possible.